Satisfying the Soul: My (Un)healthy Relationship with Food

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Photo courtesy of Cassie Pataky.

Cassie Pataky

Opinions Editor

“Ugh. I accidentally bought vitamin water that has calories, so now I don’t have as many calories later on,” my roommate said to her friend the other day (yes, I was eavesdropping). My roommate is dieting. She has talked many times about wanting to be “skinny” by summer, planning to achieve this goal by going to the gym every day and limiting her food intake. As much as I want to tell her that she should love her body, am I any better? 

I too have counted calories in the past, trying to lose the belly fat that makes crop tops seem unappealing. I understand the desire to be skinnier, as I still share this desire even now, though I am no longer cutting calories or doing sit-ups every day. I carry an awareness that I am not the thinnest person around, that I have more meat on my bones than much of the UC Santa Barbara population. 

To cope with this knowledge, I validate my body by reassuring myself that I have a healthy one. Even if some random person thinks I’m overweight, I know that I am healthy. I work out regularly and monitor my diet, which is essentially what my roommate does, just in a different format. 

I used to think this attitude towards my body and my diet was superior to others (such as my roommate). Perhaps I still do. Instead of counting calories or measuring out exactly how many grams of protein and fiber I consume, I simply maintain a more-or-less balanced diet. I’m not obsessive about it — if I want to have pancakes for breakfast and I don’t make bacon or eggs to accompany it, that’s okay — which I think is the key to my attitude being more sustainable and flexible. 

Before having an apartment and being able to cook for myself, I had to rely on the options in the dining halls, which can be limiting. Sometimes I wanted to have salad, but the ingredients at the salad bar looked dried out or gross, so I’d either skip the vegetables or find another way to incorporate them into my dinner.

Having this flexibility is good. Constantly scrutinizing what we are eating and punishing ourselves for not adhering to a strict diet is equally as unhealthy as binge eating and giving into every temptation. Many times we lack control over what we eat, such as when on a meal plan, and it is okay to recognize this challenge and the defeat it sometimes entails.

I think I lead a healthy lifestyle, but I only take pride in my body because I am being “healthy.” Despite claiming to not be “obsessive,” I still pay enough attention to what I’m eating to tie it to my self-worth. If I realize I skipped out on my fruits and veggies one day, even if it wasn’t in my control, I go to bed with a guilty conscience and an extra weight in my stomach.

So how does one develop a healthy mindset towards eating? Is there even one?

Reflecting on this question, I can’t help but think of this time I was studying with a friend. She announced that once she finished writing a paragraph, she would eat her apple. 

“An apple?” I exclaimed, “What about chocolate or something?”

“But what does that say about your relationship with sweet treats?” she retorted.

In the moment, I understood what she was trying to say: we shouldn’t view sugary snacks as something to earn. It’s a slippery slope to fall down, and I’ll admit I’m still clawing my own way out of that rabbit hole.

My initial opposition, however, came from the fact that she was withholding food — nutritious food — from herself. Maybe we shouldn’t see food as something to earn. You should still have dinner regardless of how productive you were today. Your body needs fuel to function. If I’m hungry while I am studying, I eat, because I focus better when I’m not distracted by my stomach caving in on itself. 

I later asked my friend about the apple incident, and she explained that the reward wasn’t the apple but the study break that eating naturally entailed. Unwittingly, I realized, I use the same strategy sometimes. The other day while I was studying for midterms, I told myself I would take my lunch break after 30 more minutes. 

When I interviewed this friend, what stood out to me was her emphasis on intentionality. She explained that she attempts to associate her self-worth with how much control she has over eating. She eats a sweet treat because she wants it, not because the opportunity arises.

Pay attention to what you eat, not to calculate how many calories it contains, but to enjoy how it tastes. Too often I am shoveling food into my mouth before class without a second thought. Especially when I’m trying new food or recipes, I often only analyze the first few bites to figure out if I like it or not, and then I will devour the rest without savoring and enjoying it.

Apart from the sensorial aspect of tasting food, this enjoyment might also come from knowing that the meal you had was filling and balanced, or what company you ate it from, or the process of creating it. After I’ve eaten a hearty, home-cooked, balanced meal, I am satisfied in more ways than one. Happiness is a complex emotion, and it can be fed by many thoughts.

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